Across water and time, the ferry system connects Seattle’s beginnings to the present.

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MOST VISITORS GET their first glimpse of downtown Seattle via Interstate 5, skyscrapers playing peekaboo when approaching from the south and rising as one over Lake Union when coming from the north.

Editor’s note: In 2016, Pacific NW magazine will explore our world of work. In Seattle’s workplaces, one thing you can count on is change. We’ll try to help you make sense of it.

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Others take I-90, a gradual downhill slope off Snoqualmie Pass. Flying into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport involves a swooping dive around city center, and the light rail chugs through industrial Sodo and its gleaming sports palaces.

Few if any of these match the experience of approaching the city from Puget Sound, a breeze in your face and saltwater tang in your nostrils. Olympic Mountains at your back and the Cascades looming above the city, downtown rising to meet you. The first glimpse bends around a crook in the arm of Bainbridge Island, passengers reaching instinctively for smartphone cameras.

For thousands of years of Native American habitation and the first century-and-a-half of European America settlement, this was the only way into town.

Riding the ferries today is a step back in time. Squint your eyes and open your imagination, and the buildings vanish, only the triangle roof of the Smith Tower standing sentinel over the water.

People arrived in Seattle by boat, seeking new lives and fortune, trepidation and anticipation in their spines. This waterway — and these ferries — has been intertwined with their city’s destiny from the start.

MOST OF THE settlers on the Oregon Trail set out in search of good farmland, of black and fertile soil.

The Oregon Territory, which originally included what is now Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming, was considered an agricultural frontier, wide-open spaces to improve upon lives left behind.

The Denny Party, which settled at Seattle’s Alki Point on Nov. 13, 1851, and its descendants, had a different vision of the future.

The visionaries saw the deep inland port and calculated sailing times to Asian markets. Then Henry Yesler built his famous steam-powered sawmill. Puget Sound became an industrial frontier rather than an agricultural one.

Springing up to meet steadily increasing demand for transit was a fleet of boats known to popular imagination as the Mosquito Fleet.

The transcontinental railroad wouldn’t arrive in Seattle until late in the 19th century. Tacoma was chosen as the northern terminus for the route, and San Francisco claimed the southern one. The jagged peaks of the Cascades made travel from the East a problem. For Seattle and the tiny coastal towns popping up along Puget Sound, the waterway wasn’t just the easiest way to get around — it was the only option.

Competition in the ferry game, especially early on, was fierce. Barrier for entry was low — all one really needed was a boat and a dock — and sinkings were common. Black-and-white photos from the era show fat, belching smokestacks and men wearing wide-brimmed hats. Tiny company towns like Lilliwaup popped up along Hood Canal, sounding vaguely like something out of “Gulliver’s Travels.”

The Mosquito Fleet captured the city’s early entrepreneurial spirit like few other enterprises. Captains battled for the best routes crisscrossing the Sound. They carried not just people but goods, the timber and coal stimulating the local economy.

By WWI, one particularly aggressive fleet edged out the rest: The Black Ball Company, which would rule Puget Sound until after the second World War.

In Lake Union, a bygone ferry era finally floats by for good, as the Kalakala is towed past the Seattle skyline in 2004, en route to Neah Bay. Eventually, it was brought to Tacoma, where it was cut up for scrap and souvenirs. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
In Lake Union, a bygone ferry era finally floats by for good, as the Kalakala is towed past the Seattle skyline in 2004, en route to Neah Bay. Eventually, it was brought to Tacoma, where it was cut up for scrap and souvenirs. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

DAVID DENNY, SENT out as part of the first pioneering party, excitedly sent off an enthusiastic dispatch as soon as he arrived at Alki Point. Send people right away, word reached Portland, because there’s room for a thousand people here.

A thousand people probably would have fit quite comfortably then within the Seattle city limits, stretching their legs and admiring thick, emerald lawns. The problem comes when you add a couple more zeros on to that number.

Early on, the ferry system was about making geography malleable, using water as a highway to reach far-flung communities. These days, though, with budget cuts a constant threat, just maintaining the status quo is considered something of a victory.

Fog finally burns off en route to Lopez Island. The ferry ride can often be the only joyous part of an otherwise mundane journey. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Fog finally burns off en route to Lopez Island. The ferry ride can often be the only joyous part of an otherwise mundane journey. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

There are no immediate plans to expand the ferry system, says Washington State Ferry assistant secretary Lynne Griffith, although she would not rule out potential movement. Having previously witnessed Atlanta’s growing pains up close when she worked as a transit manager, Griffith knows how quickly things change.

If Seattle’s population boom continues unabated, if I-5’s arteries get more clogged and light rail’s progress stays glacial, alternative ways of alleviating congestion are going to come into play. The technology isn’t quite there to make, say, a direct Kingston-to-Seattle route feasible, and a potential Tacoma-to-Seattle route would take too long. Eventually, though, the mathematics could change.

Mark Freiboth, an able-bodied seaman directing traffic onto the MV Tacoma heading to Seattle, says crew members train in firefighting, water rescue and first aid. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Mark Freiboth, an able-bodied seaman directing traffic onto the MV Tacoma heading to Seattle, says crew members train in firefighting, water rescue and first aid. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

“The Kitsap Peninsula is going to be a changing dynamic,” Griffith says. “I really do think they’ll see growth. Maybe slowly right now, but eventually, when people run out of space over here, they go. I watched that happen in Atlanta. A big metropolis ended up in those country towns to the north, and it didn’t take very long. That’s always a possibility that would put a different kind of demand.”

 

INTERMISSION: THE EXPERT’S guide to Washington State Ferry travel:

Know your place

Each ferry run has its own delicate ecosystem, one not immediately evident to casual riders. On the 4:20 p.m. Bainbridge Island commuter run, for example, one section of the upper deck is designated the “Reading Room,” even if there’s very little signage or a heads-up to keep quiet and let them all bookworm in peace. Musicians stick to the outdoor areas, rain or shine, and that booth you slid into might usually be occupied by a crew of bike riders — they might not tell you that to your face, but they’ll most certainly give you their best Seattle cold shoulder.

About 400 ninth-graders from Oakland Bay Junior High School in Shelton board the ferry in Bremerton on their way to a field trip at the Seattle Aquarium. Dan Wages, the terminal supervisor at right, monitors the boarding. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
About 400 ninth-graders from Oakland Bay Junior High School in Shelton board the ferry in Bremerton on their way to a field trip at the Seattle Aquarium. Dan Wages, the terminal supervisor at right, monitors the boarding. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

When traveling for pleasure, avoid the commuter runs

Unless people-watching is a cherished hobby of yours, that is. Avoiding the peak hours — usually between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — will give you more room to stretch out and enjoy the trip. Otherwise, you’ll be crammed in with the hordes anxiously tapping their feet as the bridge oh-so-slowly descends upon your arrival.

Arriving on Bainbridge Island, Chilly Hilly riders pedal off the MV Tacoma.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Arriving on Bainbridge Island, Chilly Hilly riders pedal off the MV Tacoma. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

If you’re on a diet, avoid the galley food

On one hand, it feels like a very first-world-problem to criticize the quality of food produced by a floating kitchen while you take the world’s greatest commute. On the other, pretty much every option is fried, the Ivar’s clam chowder takes forever to cool and eating this for every meal would be very bad for one’s cholesterol. For what it’s worth, the chicken tenders and jojos are the most popular option, and most people avoid the hot dogs.

Barb Harris freshens up the first mate’s quarters aboard the MV Kaleetan, en route to Bremerton. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Barb Harris freshens up the first mate’s quarters aboard the MV Kaleetan, en route to Bremerton. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Be nice to the crew

The deckhand currently cleaning out the lavatories is also your CPR-certified potential hero if you pick the wrong day for a health crisis. They won’t tell you unless you ask especially nicely, but most who work on these boats went through years of training and longer waitlists to get the gig. They spent the first years working the leftover shifts — think late-night on weekends and crack-of-dawn during the week — and edging their way up the hierarchy. The least you can do is give them a friendly nod on your way past.

Make reservations if possible

The San Juan Island runs have integrated a reservation system to help you avoid long lines sitting in your car and daydreaming about how else you could be spending your afternoon.

Get a window seat

Even in the notoriously gray winter, you’ll occasionally catch a lucky sunbreak, painting the mountains the sepia of dusk and making you wonder why anyone chooses to live anywhere else. Until the mist blows back in.

Robert Wells retired after a 20-year career at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, heads back in that direction, toward his home in Port Orchard, after having dental work done in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Robert Wells retired after a 20-year career at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, heads back in that direction, toward his home in Port Orchard, after having dental work done in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

THE HISTORY OF Puget Sound ferries is best understood in three eras:

• Denny Party (1851) to World War I: anarchy, entrepreneurs elbowing each other out for market shares.

• WWI through World War II: Black Ball consolidates control as automobiles come into the picture, making room for cars in their ferries’ bellies and turning the rest obsolete, grumbling about a monopoly, but with little consequence.

• WWII to present: The state takes over.

There was an all-hands-on-deck nature to our country’s involvement in the War To End All Wars. Think “It’s A Wonderful Life”: paper and tire drives, group prayer services, George Bailey serving as the blackout warden.

In Seattle, especially, wartime really did have a significant impact.

Bremerton’s Naval Shipyard, almost overnight, became the region’s focal point. In 1939, total daily ferry sailings numbered in the 200s. By 1945, sailings had reached a peak of 424, with 23 vessels coming to and fro over the Sound, carrying workers to Kitsap Peninsula. Between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day, in less than four years, the Black Ball ferry system carried 34,931,926 passengers, 5,795,761 vehicles and 1,383,420 tons of freight.

Costs of travel were purposefully kept low out of patriotic duty. Come peacetime, nobody much cared for Black Ball’s attempts to jack up prices.

Captain Alexander Peabody, often pictured in wire-rim glasses and never with a smile, tied up the boats at Colman Dock for nine long days in protest. Three years later, in 1951, the state took over the system Peabody’s company built.

Pros of state-run ferries: reliability, predictability, not getting stranded on a random island due to a work stoppage, growth into the largest ferry system in the entire country.

Cons of state-run ferries: funding at risk in times of budget crises (read: always), takes forever to get approval for replacements, most ships are out of date before they ever take a dip in the water.

Sleepy riders heading to Seattle from Bremerton snooze in their cars. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Sleepy riders heading to Seattle from Bremerton snooze in their cars. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

If the pre-WWI ferry system reflected the city’s industrial spirit, the modern age reflects Seattle at its cosmopolitan, egalitarian present.

“We’re a flat community, hierarchically,” explains Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History & Industry. “We like to get together and collectively come to the right decision. They call that the Seattle Process that people make fun of.

“That’s very much a reflection of modern Seattle, or at least the Seattle of the last 50 years.”

 

SEATTLE HAS ALWAYS fought against the constraints of its geographic reality.

The Denny Party eventually fled Alki Point for Elliott Bay and its superior port. The city filled in its waterfront marshland and leveled hills. Roads and floating bridges were built, and Harbor Island was the largest artificial island in the world when it was dredged into reality in 1909. The shipping canal linked saltwater with fresh.

The ferries, it was thought when the state took over, were a placeholder until technology would allow for the bridging of the Sound. Most of Peabody’s fleet, after all, was purchased from San Francisco when the Golden Gate Bridge opened. Eventually, our line would become outdated, too.

Our ferries are part of everyday Seattle life, as swimmers at West Seattle’s Colman Pool do their thing while others make their crossing to Vashon Island. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Our ferries are part of everyday Seattle life, as swimmers at West Seattle’s Colman Pool do their thing while others make their crossing to Vashon Island. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

But the Washington State Ferry system lives on. The ferries are simultaneously a step back in time and a functioning part of the city’s present and future.

More than 23 million people rode them in 2015, a number that has been on the rise for each of the past three years. Numbers surge in the summer, when tourists crowd the deck and seagulls put on an extra few pounds, thanks to complimentary snacks.

In the winter, though, you get a glimpse of the vital utility.

Construction workers crowd the late-afternoon Bremerton run, neon vests giving them away. The Bainbridge Island ships are more crowded and slightly swankier. Fewer broken benches are roped off by yellow police tape, and the lights feel less lunchroom-fluorescent. Bremerton is as commuter-utilitarian as it gets.

Walking the deck, there’s a sense of timelessness. Commuters play cards and drink beer, check their watches and daydream about home, same as it ever was. In a city where, on land, touchstones to the past are offered up to the Amazon construction gods of the present, a time capsule like this feels both rare and worthwhile.

On the return leg, step out onto the deck, strain your neck for that first glimpse of downtown. Take a breath and think about where you are, on a floating machine crammed with cars and all other kinds of things typically less than buoyant. If you’re lucky, the mountains are out, the sky and water crystalline blue. The city rises to meet you, as enveloping now as it was in 1851, a shared experience connecting Seattleites past and present.